Sunday, March 12, 2023

In conversation with Fatima Manji - video

You can now watch the video of my interview with Fatima Manji about her book Hidden Heritage, conducted yesterday as part of Macfest.

It's a fascinating book. Among the many stories told, I was much taken by the fact that Abdul Karim, known as the "Munshi", taught Queen Victoria,
"to speak and write in what was then known to Britons as 'Hindustani'; essentially the Hindi and Urdu languages. She learned the Nastaliq writing system of Urdu which itself derives from Persian." (p. 137)
In 1902, her son the Duke of Connaught spoke Urdu when he welcomed dignitaries from India and elsewhere to commemorations relating to the coronation of his brother, Edward VI. As I say in the interview, my grandfather also had to learn Urdu while serving in the British Army in India in the 1930s - he apparently had three months to learn it before undergoing an exam with an Indian examiner; if he failed, he got sent home. Grandpa was then encouraged to learn a second Indian language and learned Pashto, which was of use in his time in the North West Frontier. He was still reasonably fluent in the early 1990s.

But as Manji argues,
"Victoria's enthusiasm for Urdu, her passion for art and culture of the Orient, and her defence of her friend Abdul Karim are admirable. They are under-reported inspirations in Britain's history for us to draw upon. Yet they cannot whitewash her presiding over a repressive, destructive colonial empire. Ultimately it is the structural, and not the personal, that determined the fate of the millions she ruled." (p. 151)
I'm also struck by the story of two Indian brothers fighting on opposing sides in the First World War: Mir Dast was awarded the Victoria Cross by the British; Mir Mast was awarded the Iron Cross by the Germans. Oh, and Manji also speaks to my friend Vinay Patel about his 2018 Doctor Who episode Demons of the Punjab (p. 111).

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